Terence Blacker: What happened to the British bulldog spirit?

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The Independent Online

Naively, perhaps, I have always assumed that Armageddon fever would take its time to reach south Norfolk. The rest of the world may be going mad but life in, say, Diss, potters along pretty much as usual. There are the usual rural crises – pig farmers going bust, supermarkets driving local shops out of business, rows over bypasses or housing developments – but, on the whole, everyday existence has a reassuring rhythm. The local paper contains headlines like "Goat found in road", "Car hits wall" or "Neighbours clash over new garden".

Naively, perhaps, I have always assumed that Armageddon fever would take its time to reach south Norfolk. The rest of the world may be going mad but life in, say, Diss, potters along pretty much as usual. There are the usual rural crises – pig farmers going bust, supermarkets driving local shops out of business, rows over bypasses or housing developments – but, on the whole, everyday existence has a reassuring rhythm. The local paper contains headlines like "Goat found in road", "Car hits wall" or "Neighbours clash over new garden".

According to one of those vaguely pointless surveys that are published now and then, this area was reported to be the third most desirable area in which to live (Stoke was the least desirable) in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps it is this very quality of life that has prompted some highly uncharacteristic local behaviour over the past three weeks. Suddenly, the most popular shop in Diss seems to be the Quartermaster's Store, a local army surplus outlet. In a normal year, the shop might sell 50 gas masks; this September, its entire stock of 650 was bought up. Chemical warfare suits, normally a novelty item bought for fancy dress parties, have also been in demand – more than 180 have gone so far – as have survival rations, blankets, sandbags and crates of candles.

Something very peculiar is going on when apparently sane people are panicked into buying virtually anything that could be of use in a nuclear bunker, but the anxiety seems to be general. In Gloucestershire, a local paper is conducting a poll among its readers as to whether the Government should be distributing gas-masks and chemical protection suits to the entire population. More predictably, the internet now throngs with security firms cashing in on a new boom. One offers to "support all responsible citizens in their quest of personal readiness" while another urges Americans to "educate yourself on the current threat and what you can do to protect yourself and your family".

At a time when so much courage has been shown by many ordinary people, how is it that the rest of us have been prevailed upon to behave so wimpishly, flapping about as if we were taking part in an updated version of Dad's Army?

The media, of course, has been gleefully apocalyptic, but the alarmist tone has been established by apparently confused pronouncements on the part of our leaders. On the one hand, we have been encouraged to resume our lives, to resist terrorism by working, playing and spending money in the normal way.

Yet, beyond these reassurances, other, more frightening messages have been delivered by authoritative figures in American and British governments. Further attacks are likely. Osama bin Laden has weapons of mass destruction at his disposal. The West should prepare for biological or chemical warfare, according to the World Health Organisation.

These are distinctly mixed messages. If there is a genuine threat, then the local newspaper in Gloucester was right to suggest that the Government should take action to protect its citizens. If the danger is, at worst, slight, then those stocking up with masks and plastic suits should be told that they are being unduly anxious and wasting their money.

Warnings of terrorist attack may harden the resolve of ordinary people, but they also serve a secondary purpose. By spreading fear among their own citizens, governments soften opposition to military measures, however extreme they may be. They make it easier for draconian security measures to be imposed within their own countries.

A population afraid for its survival and that of its children will agree to almost anything that is done in its name.

terblacker@aol.com

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